Article: Age-Inclusive Learning & Development Approaches

Article: Age-Inclusive Learning & Development Approaches

Employees and companies benefit when workers of all ages keep up to date

by Ashley Powdar, AARP, July 29, 2021

Updated August 18, 2023

Two men working at a factory
Getty Images

Employer attitudes toward providing training to their employees has waxed and waned over the past 20 years. In the first decade of the 20th century, employer spending on training decreased by 28%[1], but as skill needs began to shift more rapidly and the automation of tasks began to accelerate, the need to provide training to bridge the skills gap became more and more apparent. Indeed, LinkedIn reported that “38% of executives with enterprises of 5,000 employees or more believing that closing skills gaps is an urgent business priority.” [2]

And this trend shows no sign of stopping. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2023 report estimates that “in the next five years 83 million jobs are projected to be lost and 69 million are projected to be created” with the result that nearly half (44%) of workers’ current skills will need updating.  That level of displacement creates a business imperative for employers to provide training opportunities to their existing employees rather than expecting new hires to satisfy all skills gaps. [i]Don’t forget that onboarding a new hire can reach 50 – 60% of an employee's annual salary in contrast to retraining an existing team member.

With as many as five generations in the workforce, age-inclusive learning and development approaches are a must. Traditionally the youngest and oldest workers have been the least likely to receive training from their employers, while workers toward the middle of the age range received substantially more. But the pace of change and the need for skilled workers is pushing organizations to realize all employees need access to training, regardless of age.

Developing a training program can seem like a colossal task with no guidebook on where to begin.  Our latest article The Top 10 Skills Employers Need in their Employees is a great starting point to online courses with a strong ROI. Additionally here are 6 ways to approach training opportunities with an inclusive lens.

1.       Adopt a Growth Mindset: Fostering a growth mindset requires intention and executive sponsorship for the culture change to be effective. Shifting opinions and assumptions away from the idea that everyone’s abilities are fixed and finite toward the idea that everyone can grow and learn new skills can be supported by a number of actions. First, acknowledge learning as a valuable activity in and of itself that can come in a variety of ways – formal training, on-the-job training, ideation and innovation sessions, job swapping, group problem-solving, and individual creativity.  Second, support and encourage learning activity across the organization by providing training options, incentivizing managers to promote and support learning opportunities, and rewarding/recognizing employees who develop new skills or try new approaches. Third, establish an environment in which suggesting new ideas and taking risks are encouraged and recognized. Remove punitive measures from failed ideas and projects. Instead, incentivize the courage to fail and fail quickly before the next try.

Interested in developing agility and growth mindset skills in your employees? Consider Change Management courses.

2.       Promote Online Courses Across All Age Groups: Avoid making decisions about training and career advancement opportunities based on stereotypes about an employee’s age. Life stage is a better indicator of the types of opportunities that may be of interest to an individual – don’t assume older workers aren’t interested in learning emerging skills (in fact, research shows they very much are), or that younger workers aren’t interested in leadership and management courses. When communicating training opportunities for a group or the entire workforce, disseminate information equally and simultaneously. Remove any language from communications that hint at ageist stereotypes or assumptions of who will be most interested in training.

3.       Provide Training in a Variety of Formats: There are many different learning styles yet its common that only visual and verbal learning is most recognized and practiced. Try to provide a variety of learning opportunities for the same material. For example, self-paced and online learning might be helpful to an employee juggling caregiving responsibilities for both young children and aging parents. In person learning may be effective to social learners based on the direct support and option to engage with questions. Offering the curriculum in print materials, in addition to online content, can benefit solitary or visual learners who do best when they can diagram or jot down notes. Additionally, consider no or low-cost ways to provide opportunities for employees to grow, such as job-swapping and temporary assignments.

4.       Accept Different Learning Styles: No one learning style equates to retention or mastery of new skills. While it is tempting to equate speed with intelligence and ability, speed of course completion does not automatically result in improved skillsets. The crystallized intelligence common in older workers may initially slow their learning curve relative to younger workers, but their ability to contextualize new information based on decades of experience improves retention and thoroughness of understanding. On the flip side, younger counterparts are usually high in fluid intelligence, which helps them absorb information quickly and master tasks in the short-term, making them excellent helpers for those requiring additional assistance. The cross pollination of generations in the workforce allow learning styles to exchange and strengthen age-inclusive learning and development as a whole.

5.       Leverage Age Diversity for Informal and Soft Skills Training: Soft skills such as leadership, communication and critical thinking are most effectively learned over time through work and life experiences. Younger workers can benefit from more seasoned colleagues and exposure to leadership in the formation of those non-automatable, uniquely human skills that are difficult to predict and recruit for. A buddy system or mentoring program where younger and older employees can work together to solve current problems hands-on is an accelerated form of training and a valuable addition to structured courses. Additionally, older workers can learn just as much from their younger counterparts, so framing mentoring opportunities within a growth mindset is important to encouraging a two-way exchange of skills and knowledge. Download our Designing an Age-Inclusive Mentoring Program tip sheet for additional support.

6.       Partner with External Organizations: As organizations lay the groundwork for age-inclusive training, infrastructure may not be available to fund a full-fledged program. A more affordable option is to start with a tuition reimbursement program for employees. Leverage internal communication channels such as an Intranet or internal newsletter to publicize the program and communicate the intent to close the skills gap. As utilization grows, you may find it more cost-effective to more training programs in-house. . Alternatively, you may want to work more closely with local educational institutions to provide highly tailored upskilling offerings. Community colleges and university partnerships are an excellent resource and are increasingly open to tailoring a program specific to your industry, business challenges and employee skill gaps. Working collaboratively with these institutions on course material, helping select instructors, or recreating specific equipment or working environments are some of the ways to leverage external partnerships to ensure employees are getting the training you need for future growth (theirs and yours). AARP and MindEdge have partnered to launch the Build Your Skills at Work Platform. Pledge Signers receive an exclusive 10% discount on all online courses and certifications for their employees. Contact to unlock the discount.

Consider these case studies for practical examples.

[3]On-the-job training   

Occurs: During the regular workday   

Type: Structured on-the-job training

Company: Kuwait National Petroleum Company

Industry: Oil refining

Workforce: Large (500+ employees)

Kuwait National Petroleum Company used structured on-the-job training for newly hired engineers, who typically arrived with a general understanding of the theory and principles of engineering but lacked knowledge of engineering’s application to oil refining. This program differed from most structured on-the-job training in that it focused on all the tasks performed in a particular position (e.g., refinery engineer) rather than the general tasks performed by engineers across the industry. With the input of subject-matter experts, a consultant and the HR staff produced modules detailing the tasks involved in each process. Established employees acted as mentors and checkers who trained new employees, reducing overall learning time from 53 to 36 months.

Job transfers and rotations   

Occurs: By working in other roles   

Type: Cross-training and job rotations

Company: Marriott International

Industry: Hospitality

Workforce: Large (500+ employees)

Marriott, with a rapidly aging workforce, combined training and development opportunities, workplace flexibility, and health and wellness management for hourly workers. Notably, the company used cross-training to help workers develop new skills that would help them manage the physically demanding aspects of their jobs, then instituted job rotations once workers had been trained on several positions. For example, a laundry worker (very physically demanding) might rotate into the lobby attendant position (less physically demanding) two days a week. Additionally, this allowed greater flexibility when a worker needed time off, because more workers were able to perform the same tasks.

Coaching and mentoring   

Occurs: As part of coaching and mentoring teams   

Type: Reverse mentoring

Company: The Hartford

Industry: Financial services

Workforce: Large (500+ employees)

Using a change management model to build its reverse mentoring program, the Hartford brought together meaningful work and training concerns. The younger mentors were early-career and had technical skills, while the older mentors were leaders in the organization. The Hartford used a variety of internal resources to spread the word about reverse mentoring, such as internal social media and other internal websites.

For more information on age-inclusivity for employers, visit